I'm a writer and visual artist in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Posts tagged “Book Design”

Field Notes

I finished my Field Notes project! The final book contains thirty-six pages of photos and poems. I’ve printed a small edition of 18, and it’s also available through Blurb. This project was graciously supported by a Professional Project Grant from the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council. As part of my grant I wrote a final report for the NLAC, and thought I’d post it here.

A Book About Writing Outdoors

Field Notes is a series of poems and photographs about writing outdoors, and explores symmetries between human relationships and our attachments to landscape and place.

The work consists of fifteen photographs, each paired with a poem. Each photograph is of a brief phrase composed outdoors with found materials, such as spruce needles or reeds. These photographed passages are reminiscent of fragments from letters, suggesting distance and longing. They allude to relationships (a distant friend, a long-lost lover, a cherished place), and share an anonymity with messages left on highwayside stones, declarations of love carved in treebark, or postcards found in a curiosity shop.

I made the photographs first, mostly in fields, forests, beaches and backyards near Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. Each involved finding a place to work outdoors (preferably where I would not be interrupted), spending some time in the location, identifying a material to work with, assembling the text, and finally photographing it. Some materials were easier to work with than others; the spruce needles were particularly finicky, especially if it was at all windy.

When I would go out to work on the project I’d bring a list of possible passages to write, but I found that the best images ended up being the ones where I thought up a new text on the spot, in response to the location. I made about twenty-five of these works in total between fall 2013 and summer 2014, and chose the best fifteen for the final series. I printed eight of these as a series of postcards.

Fifteen poems comprise the other half of Field Notes. As I worked on the photographs I kept a small notebook, noting details about my working process or the environment around me (the softness of rotting wood, a crow overhead, finding a toad). In the summer and fall of 2014, I polished each page of notes into a poem. Some required much more reworking than others, and in general I found this the most difficult part of this project. Most of my notes started as descriptive passages about working with natural materials, but the poetry expanded to describe the wider range of reactions and emotions that welled up during the making of the work, from disappointment and bitterness to a sense of wonder and renewal.

Generally, the poems are intended to give context and description to the photographs. While the photos can work on their own, the poems only really make sense when displayed alongside the photographs. A book seemed like a natural medium for this work.

After completing the photos and poems, I began to put them together into a book. I am a graphic designer, so I was able to do this myself using various software. I made a final photograph for the cover, and wrote end notes and a “thank you” page. Once everything was ready, I ordered a test print of the book. It arrived after a few weeks and I made a few small changes, then ordered a small edition of books. The printing is done through Blurb.com, a high-quality print-on-demand service. The books are hardcover, 36 pages, full colour, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out.

With Any Luck

Like any creative project, Field Notes evolved as I worked on it. I had originally planned to make all the photographs in the fall of 2013, but the snow settled in sooner than expected, and the snow-covered landscape didn’t lend itself well to the kind of images I wanted to make. So the work ended up taking much longer than I’d anticipated, but I think it is all the better for it. The photographs benefit from being spread out over the course of a year, and are littered with little indications of season, such as orange autumn needles or new spring shoots. The poems, too, have a much richer sense of observing changes in a landscape over time.

I found myself much more nervous than I’d expected about working anywhere where I might be asked what I was doing. As a result, I sought out places where I could work without being disturbed, which were sometimes the backyards of close friends. So the landscapes I worked with ended up being less “wild” than I had imagined. Some of the poems explore this tension between domesticity and wilderness, the rhythm of the human world versus the vagaries of wind and weather. Made soon after I returned from a year living in California, the work is also a little bit about rediscovering a sense of home.

For a project that involves a lot of solitary work, this also ended up being a more social endeavor than I’d imagined. During the making of the photos there were many opportunities to connect with friends and fellow artists: walking with a friend up the pipeline trail in Margaret Bowater Park to scout out locations, catching a ride around the bay, or borrowing the backyards of colleagues in Corner Brook. I also posted work on Facebook as I progressed, and a few people made suggestions which ended up being incorporated into the final work.

My working process for this project was inspired partly by the work of Andy Goldsworthy. When I teach, I often show students the documentary Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides, so I’ve seen it many times. I am also interested in the work of Marlene Creates, who often bridges photography and language in her interpretations of the Newfoundland landscape. The work of Nina Katchadourian, who photographs small interventions in natural scenes (such as repairing a spider’s web with thread), was also in the back of my mind. As I worked on Field Notes I came across the work of a few new artists whose work resonated, including Song Dong (who writes ephemeral messages with water) and India K (who photographs cut-paper texts hanging in various landscapes).

As part of my research for Field Notes, I wrote an article about Paul-Émile Miot’s remarkable 1857 photograph of Album Rock in Ship Cove (on the Northern Peninsula). Miot’s photograph shows the word Album painted in large white letters on a prominent rock which, over 150 years later, is still known as Album Rock. He intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos.

Letting the Work Out Into the World

As I worked on my Field Notes photographs on the edges of my home in western Newfoundland, the images also found a home on the web. I posted photographs on Tumblr as I made them, along with a few animations I’d made from some of the photos, and received lots of interest and encouragement. I had first started using Tumblr for a previous project (a book of photos and handwritten notes called Small Landmarks), so I already had a small audience when I began posting work from this project. Tumblr has a strange and capricious community, and its users freely share and remix images with enthusiasm and earnestness. One of my images (i don’t know how to say this) has been “liked” and reblogged more than 70000 times. It continues to bounce around the web, and has undoubtedly been seen by many more people. Another image was posted on the Tumblr page of Hyperallergic. I don’t know that this implies an engagement with the work beyond tapping on an image on a phone screen, but it’s still encouraging. I also received a few touching messages from complete strangers, which was wonderfully heartening.

When photographing do you see what i mean, I also made a short video of the sun passing through the letters as if reading the words. This video was screened at Eastern Edge Gallery as part of Wade In, a travelling series of art videos.

As I worked on the poetry part of the project, I printed postcards of eight different photographs from Field Notes. I really enjoyed sending these postcards to friends, and mailed about thirty of them with handwritten messages. The phrases I spelled out in the photographs are meant to feel like fragments from letters (with any luck; write back soon; these things happen), so in a way postcards are the perfect medium for the photos. I like the idea of postcards spreading handwriting in the world. In a world of screens and printed pages, handwritten postcards feel simultaneously archaic and intensely personal.

I have had artwork from a previous project accepted for publication in issue 20 of Riddle Fence (which should be published in November or December), and they’ve agreed to insert a postcard from Field Notes in each copy of the issue as well. I also have postcards for sale at Monastiraki, a gallery / art shop in Montreal.

What I’ve Learned

This project has been challenging in many ways. It felt good to make art out of my “comfort zone,” which is very much digital media. Working with very tiny materials and tweezers on breezy days taught me a lot about patience. It was also very useful for me to tackle a serious series of poems, as writing is becoming a larger part of my creative practice. I learned a lot about my personal limitations, and got better at balancing the need to plan ahead with the desire to work spontaneously. I also realized that I love postcards as an art medium – they’re an inexpensive and personal way to give my photos and writing to others. This project also helped me improve several practical skills, such as working with found materials, book design, and using Tumblr effectively to promote work.

One conclusion from this project is that I’d like to work outdoors more often, expending less of my creative energy in front of a screen. Printing postcards has allowed me to share my work in a new way that I find intriguing, and will continue to explore. I also moved to St. John’s over the summer, and I find it easier here to focus on both making art and writing, and to connect with a larger art community.

Making Field Notes has been an experience that’s given me many moments of quiet solitude, mindfulness, and taught me a lot about frustration and patience. I’m very grateful to the NLAC for the generous grant that made this possible.

Field Notes is available through Blurb. You can follow me on Tumblr and Twitter.


A few pages from Overwintered, a short bookwork I made about a year I spent living in Northern California. The book contains 32 spreads like these, with photos, writing, and a few drawings. I printed 25 copies of this for a zine exchange.

An Artist’s Book in iBooks Author

"small landmarks" coverI recently created my first ebook, small landmarks, and published it on the Apple iBookstore. It was a rewarding project, but at times a little bewildering. During the process I found it very useful to read other people’s tips about digital self-publishing and working with iBooks, so I decided to write about my own experience. Here are my notes about using iBooks Author 2.0 to publish a photography / art book on the Apple iBookstore.

From idea to iBookstore

Small landmarks is an artist’s book of photos and notebook writing. It’s a visual journal of walking and thinking in eastern Canada. You can read more about it here. The book has 114 pages, and contains 228 photos often presented in sets of two or four. It also contains just over 6000 words, mostly presented as scanned handwritten notebook pages.

First thoughts and first drafts
Early notes for a book project.

Early notes for a book project.

The idea of making a book has been in the back of my mind for several years, and small landmarks started to take shape over a year ago. Photoblogging has been a significant part of my artistic practice for many years, and I wanted to present the work from my photoblog in a way that felt more fully resolved. Rather than making large prints, I decided to focus on a book, which better matches the intimacy and structure of a blog. I also decided to include some writing from the notebooks I often carry when walking with my camera.

I began by sifting through my archive of photos and writing – about eight years of digital photos and physical notebooks. Many of the photos came from my indexical photoblog, where I often presented photos as diptychs, so pairs of photos became an important part of the structure of the book. I scanned dozens of notebook pages and began matching snippets of writing with the photos. As the project grew, I realized that it would be quite expensive to print a large book of colour photographs. Around this time (about a year ago), I happened to be hired by a photographer to assist with designing and publishing an ebook using iBooks Author. During my research, I realized that small landmarks would work quite well as an ebook.

A first draft in Keynote.

A first draft in Keynote.

I teach university classes, and often use Keynote for presentations. Keynote is a pleasure to work with, so I decided to use it as a fast and simple way to create a first draft of my book. This worked especially well since small landmarks is basically a series of images. I did three different drafts of the book in Keynote before moving to iBooks author.

Hoping to build a small audience for the book, I set up a Tumblr and started posting excerpts. Nothing I put on Tumblr was shared very widely, but I enjoyed knowing that people were finding out about the project, and receiving a little bit of feedback as I worked.

Building the book in iBooks Author

When I started importing my draft into iBooks Author, I was thinking of the book as a single uninterrupted stream of pages. However, iBooks Author expects multiple chapters (it automatically builds a table of contents), and at this point I began rethinking the book’s structure. I wanted to present the photos and writing non-chronologically, but loosely organized according to where the photos were taken. I decided to split the book into three chapters (Newfoundland, Halifax and Montreal), which helped give the book a stronger sense of movement and pacing.

I prepared my book pages in Photoshop, with each page a single 2048 × 1366 image. This doesn’t fit the iPad dimensions exactly, but worked best to accomodate both the vertical pairs of images and the scanned notebook pages. In iBooks Author, I used the Inspector to make my images 1024 pixels wide to fit on the page. I used the shape tool to make a black background on each page. I wanted to keep the interface very simple, so I didn’t use any interactive widgets, and the images are shown without titles or captions. I disabled portrait mode for my book since the pages are all landscape.

You can run into colour profile issues when importing images into both Keynote and iBooks Author. I found that copying and pasting images instead of using the ‘Choose’ dialog solved the problem.

Working in iBooks Author.

Working in iBooks Author.

In iBooks Author I also created a cover, table of contents, introduction and afterward. I then spent a considerable amount of time fine-tuning everything, including reordering pages, proofreading, and tweaking typefaces and spacing. At one point I took a two-week break from the project. Returning to the project with fresh eyes helped me better see the book as a whole, and I removed a few pages which didn’t seem to work. I also rearranged the handwritten texts to better carry certain themes through the book.

I don’t own an iPad, which slowed my progress a little (I occasionally borrowed a friend’s to test the book). It’s unfortunate that iBooks Author 2.0 doesn’t allow any way to preview the book without physically plugging in an iPad, but I suppose this will change once OS X Mavericks enables reading iBooks on a Mac.

Applying to the iBookstore

As I neared completion of small landmarks, I began the process of registering as a content provider on the iBookstore. Because I wanted to sell my book, I needed to apply for a US Tax ID (EIN), even though I am Canadian. This involved a 15-minute call to the IRS, then waiting about a week and a half for my number to enter the system. Next I applied to iTunes Connect, another two-day wait. Finally, I was able to log in to iTunes Connect, download iTunes Producer, and submit my project to the iBookstore. Submitting a book requires a lot of paperwork, as you have to provide banking and tax information for each country you want the book to be available in. I decided to submit to the Canadian, US, and UK iBookstores, and elected not to get an ISBN.

Paid books are required to provide a “free sample” version. Rather than having iBooks Author automatically generate this, I put it together myself. I also had to provide metadata about the book, including a short written description and a few screenshots.

Once a book is uploaded, it is reviewed by Apple for quality assurance – another wait! In my case this turned out to be quite a delay, as Apple’s reviewers were not thrilled that my book contained handwriting. After two days, I received an “Action Needed” ticket notifying me that my book could not be approved because it contained scanned text, “which causes a lot of customer complaints.” Apple wants text to be searchable and accessible, which I certainly understand. However, the handwriting in small landmarks is an expressive and essential part of the book. I replied to the ticket, explaining the reason for the handwriting, and arguing that my book was more like a graphic novel. After a few days went by with no reply, I began to worry. I wrote to Apple again through a different contact form, and also posted on the Support Communities forums.

Finally, more than a week after I’d uploaded the book, I received a reply stating that my request was approved, and that my book would be available on the iBookstore within 24 hours. The next morning, everything had worked out. Small landmarks is available right now on the iBookstore, for 99¢.

Some draft cover designs for small landmarks.

Some draft cover designs for small landmarks.

Overall, the process was a little more complex than I’d expected, but I learned a lot. Here are some things that I liked and didn’t like about working with iBooks Author and publishing through the iBookstore.

Good things about iBooks Author and the iBookstore

  • As I’d expected from my experiences with Apple software, I found iBooks Author fairly easy to use and intuitive, as long as you can work within the limitations of the templates provided (see “Bad things” below).
  • I appreciated iBooks Author’s option to export the book as a PDF, and it does a great job. This was useful for sharing the book with friends who do not have iPads.
  • Digital publishing feels like the future, and iBooks is an easy way to get started. It’s pretty amazing to be able to put together a book of my work and have it available for sale in multiple countries in such a short time. Ebooks are a huge opportunity for artists and writers to take control of how their work reaches a wider audience. As a web designer I can fairly easily self-publish work on the web, but an ebook feels more fully resolved and can be conveniently sold, which is something I wanted to try with this project.

Bad things about iBooks Author and the iBookstore

  • iBooks Author 2.0 can be frustrating in many ways. It’s clearly designed with interactive textbooks in mind, and the templates provided are not particularly imaginative or varied. You don’t have to spend much time on the support forums to find authors frustrated with the software’s assumptions about what a book looks like. I chose to work with the templates rather than struggling against them, which was easy for me as my book content is fairly adaptable. The templates are actually surprisingly customizable, but you often have to dig through the Inspector menu for an obscurely-labelled option to accomplish what you want. As usual, Google searches proved invaluable.
  • Because of the way iBooks Author handles text flowing across multiple pages, the software does not let you rearrange pages. So something as simple as switching the order of two pages becomes an unwieldly ordeal of inserting a new page, copying and pasting content, then deleting the old page. This felt especially preposterous since my book does not have text flowing from page to page.
  • It is almost inevitable that you will find yourself using small hacks to accomplish things in iBooks. There were a couple of times the software simply wouldn’t let me delete something (such as a divider or a page number), so I resorted to hiding it behind a background image, or setting the text colour the same as the background. This shouldn’t be necessary.
  • iBooks Author should provide a way to quickly preview the book full-screen without needing an actual iPad. This will likely be fixed in OS X Mavericks, but lacking such a basic feature makes iBooks Author 2.0 feel like beta software.
  • The process of setting up an iTunes Connect account was not as simple as I would have expected from Apple. Granted, this was partly because of the requirement to apply for a US tax ID, which I suppose Apple doesn’t have a lot of control over. There are additional complications when setting up to sell books in Canada, and you will inevitably find yourself digging through the Apple Support Communities forums for clarification and commiseration. However, I did receive a prompt and helpful response from iTunes Tax Support when I emailed them with a question.

After all that…

Finally, for all the effort put into this process, I should note that I do not expect to sell a ton of books. Small landmarks is a very personal and unconventional artist’s book, and my goals for this project were mostly to experiment with a new medium and to present this particular body of work in a professional way. The visual nature of my book makes it a good fit for the iPad, but I’ve deliberately kept its structure simple so that I can adapt it to other ebook platforms, or perhaps make a print version. The ebook format seems to be a good match for my work, and I enjoyed the process of making one, so I definitely plan to continue experimenting with electronic artist’s books.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to check out small landmarks, it’s available here (including a free excerpt version). I’m also on Tumblr and Twitter.

Content ©  2019 Matthew Hollett. RSS